South Carolina AG’s hold on James Brown estate: doesn’t ‘feel good,’ seem right

Shining light on the dark side of estate management.  Since our 2007 launch, Estate of Denial® has been working to that end.  The state of South Carolina’s questionable involvement in “Godfather of Soul” James Brown’s estate provides a classic example of the “light” often missing as American property rights are threatened via illicit use of wills, trusts, guardianships and powers of attorney. The Newberry Observer’s Sue Summer has been the only reporter following actions related to the entertainer’s estate.  The state’s recent issuance of a broad subpoena seeking her research and contacts relating to the case is, however, attracting new attention from sources including the Columbia Journalism Review as what appears a state-sponsored hijacking of Brown’s assets is now also being questioned as perhaps an effort to silence reporters and influence press coverage.  And past the property rights and free press aspects of this case, a host of public policy questions continue with regard to government transparency, taxpayer accountability as well as potential abuses of power by both the Attorney General’s office and the South Carolina legal system.

Taxpayers need confidence that government respects the rule of law, that they can plan or make economic decisions without fearing undue interference or influence on the part of government.  James Brown expected exactly that upon preparing his estate plan which included  the “I Feel Good” private foundation to provide scholarships for poor children in South Carolina and Georgia.  Among other provisions, he also specified some of his grandchildren to receive educational benefits from his estate.

Instead of the estate being privately administered as per Brown’s clearly documented wishes, the state stepped in upon his 2006 death and negotiated a settlement giving away more than half of Brown’s music empire to parties Brown specifically disinherited – including about half of his alleged children and his former companion Tommie Rae Hynie, a woman who claimed to be Brown’s wife despite having been married to another man when the two exchanged vows in 2001.  Brown had become aware of her status and had the “marriage” annulled with Hynie signing an agreement to never claim marital status with Brown. Nonetheless, Hynie was awarded a generous portion of Brown’s assets and the state continues controlling the estate today.

This case offers “pick your issue” opportunity with regard to an array of troubling public policy implications – any of which can have significant impact on the public at large.

Property rights including rights of inheritance

An important though increasingly threatened property right is an individual’s ability to determine their final distribution of assets be it a transfer of assets from one generation to another or to whomever else they want.  James Brown had an estate plan which clearly detailed his wishes.  A government takeover of his estate was not part of the stated plan.  However, poor children in South Carolina and Georgia were as also were some of Brown’s own grandchildren – and to date, it appears none have received funds directed for their benefit.

Brown’s rights to determine final distribution of assets are being posthumously denied while his legitimate heirs and beneficiaries are also being denied their rightful inheritance or other benefit of the estate.   Legal industry insiders and related government allies are the only parties seemingly deriving benefit from this action.

Brown named people to receive his assets – they haven’t.  He named people not to benefit from his estate – they have.  And if government can come in and functionally hijack James Brown’s estate, what does that say about the respect and observance of property rights for anyone else in South Carolina?  And are we safer anywhere else?  Don’t count on it.

Government transparency/taxpayer accountability    

When government financed by public dollars inserted itself into Brown’s estate, the public at that time became entitled to know what’s going on both with the estate and with actions taken by elected officials or public employees.

With the state of South Carolina’s ongoing involvement in Brown’s estate, former trustee Adele Pope filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests seeking to learn provisions of the new government-controlled “Legacy Trust” created in 2008 with Brown’s assets by then South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster.  She also sought to determine why government-appointed trustees valued the estate at $4.7 million, an amount representing annual royalties alone, when all previous fiduciaries considered it worth around $100 million.

Russell Bauknight, the current Brown trustee, serves at the pleasure of Attorney General Alan Wilson, the elected official whose office also has FOIA oversight responsibility.  In response to Pope’s FOIA requests, the South Carolina AG’s office/Brown trustee cooperative threatened Pope with legal action and sanctions if she continued to exercise her rights under the FOIA.

Pope was also served with a subpoena related to diaries of Tommie Rae Hynie in which she was asked to turn over all written communications related to the Hynie diaries including any “blogger, website or media outlet.” Per one of Summer’s articles, a longtime Brown friend suggests “the diaries could be key in disallowing Hynie’s claim and returning about $25 million to the Brown trust for needy and deserving children.”

In court documents, Summer reports, Pope has asserted “both AG Wilson and the ‘Legacy Trust’ are seeking to conceal public documents which would show improper acts by members of the AG’s office, the previous AG and/or the trustee of the ‘Legacy Trust.’

As asking questions has prompted a targeting of Pope and now Summer by the Brown trustee serving at the pleasure of the taxpayer-financed, voter-elected attorney general, South Carolina residents ought to be asking questions as well.  If Brown’s estate comprises private assets, why is the government involved?  How much is this costing taxpayers and again, why?  If the estate has been absorbed by the state, just how does that happen?  Especially in express violation of Brown’s wishes?  Where’s any oversight or accountability?  And shouldn’t the office responsible for public information oversight be a shining example of compliance with public information laws rather than appear an agent of obstruction and stonewalling?

A free press

That the state of South Carolina is taking stringent action to resist open government practices casts serious doubt on the credibility of officials involved and suggests a government with little regard for the citizens it serves.  As actions speak louder than words, the message currently being delivered seems more a “you pay us to serve your interests, we pass these laws theoretically to protect you, but here, we’re not complying- case closed.”

Ironically, the Public Official’s Guide to Compliance with South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act – a publication with its first page featuring an introductory letter from Attorney General Wilson – says the following:

Here in South Carolina, the Freedom of Information Act also is by and for the “citizens,” and the news media as their representatives, as a means to witness and gather information about government actions.

Adding to the irony, Summer told the Columbia Journalism Review how on the day she was served a subpoena by Wilson’s lawyer, the attorney general was on a bus tour promoting transparency in government.

The broad scope of Summer’s subpoena is outrageously invasive.  It appears an intimidation tactic trying to encourage Summer to drop this story.  Perhaps it also serves to dissuade other media outlets from picking it up.

Early on, the traditional media reported on the disputes surrounding the estate, but stayed away from asking why the government was involved and has since maintained control of Brown’s estate.  Thanks to Sue Summer, The Newberry Observer and now some new media outlets, the right questions are being asked and the responses are gaining attention.

Cronyism in the courts and elsewhere 

The history of this case suggests a use of the legal system to mask misconduct.  It gives a strong appearance of politically-allied cronyism ensuring protectionism and continued enrichment of those involved.  In the recent Columbia Journalism Review article, Summer further supported this position:

When Summer was served with her second subpoena in August, she said that she felt she was missing a part of the story—why would the state make repeated efforts to discourage her from publicizing the case? She took a closer look at the attorney general Alan Wilson’s re-election campaign contributions from July (Wilson took over from McMaster as attorney general last year). Two coincidences caught her eye.

On the day of Summer’s subpoena hearing in May, Wilson—who is responsible for deciding the final distribution of the estate—received election campaign contributions from a law firm who have hired private practice lawyers to secure Tommie Rae Hynie a share. (Wilson did not respond to a request for comment.) Summer also discovered that one of Hynie’s two high-powered attorneys teaches law at the University of South Carolina where McMaster has worked as a fundraiser since finishing his AG term.

It also seems to be promoting frivolous lawsuits (or threats thereof).  Such suits are helpful bullying tactics to influence behavior, facilitate a financial shakedown of an opponent and/or generate contrived, but billable hours for time spent “defending” an estate.

If paying attention, this case once again suggests to the public how the court system is not an environment based on laws, an administration of justice or even a pursuit of the truth.  It’s about legal gamesmanship and defeating or at least stonewalling an opponent.

Many questions exist regarding the state of South Carolina’s ongoing involvement with James Brown’s estate.  This is about far more than “a rich guy’s money.”  It’s about threats to property rights, rights of inheritance and our free press.  It’s about disregarding open government practices and accountability plus abusing the legal system for the enrichment of a few and at the expense of the general public.

It’s unlikely James Brown would feel good about what’s happened to his estate.  Neither should anyone else in South Carolina!

Lou Ann Anderson is an advocate working to create awareness regarding the Texas probate system and its surrounding culture. She is the Online Producer at www.EstateofDenial.com, a Policy Advisor with Americans for Prosperity – Texas and a Director of Women on the Wall. Lou Ann may be contacted at info@EstateofDenial.com.

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